Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday explained why the seizure of the nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex infantry carriers in Hong Kong does not comply with international or Hong Kong law.
He also told Parliament that Singapore looks forward to the carriers being returned.
The vehicles, Dr Ng said, are the property of the Singapore Government. "They are protected by sovereign immunity, even though they were being shipped by commercial carriers. This means that they are immune from any measures of constraint abroad.
"They cannot legally be detained or confiscated by other countries.
"This principle is well established under international law, and we are advised by lawyers that it is also the law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region," Dr Ng said in his reply to MPs' questions.
"The Singapore Government has asserted our sovereign rights over the SAF's Terrexes," he added.
Singapore has informed Hong Kong several times in the past two months that the Terrex vehicles belong to the Singapore Government and are, therefore, immune from any measures of constraint, he said.
"Accordingly, we have requested the Hong Kong authorities to return our property immediately."
He added that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has written to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying to reiterate the same message. Hong Kong has replied that investigations are ongoing and will take some time to be completed, and that the Hong Kong Government will handle the matter in accordance with their laws.
Singapore welcomes this response, Dr Ng said. "Adherence to the rule of law has been the fundamental basis for peace and stability for the last half century in Asia.
"It has enabled countries both large and small to build trust and confidence in one another, cooperate and prosper together," he said.
The nine vehicles were seized by Hong Kong Customs on Nov 23 while in transit on their way back from a military exercise in Taiwan.
Responding to MPs' questions, he reiterated that the Terrex vehicles were used for training and did not contain sensitive equipment. SAF has since done a comprehensive review of its shipping procedures to "reduce the risk of SAF equipment being taken hostage en route".
When Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) asked if the Ministry of Defence had anticipated that such "hostage situations" could happen, Dr Ng replied: " Hong Kong is an international port of repute and there is no reason to believe that our SAF assets will be seized."
The SAF is also considering other options, like housing the equipment at its overseas training sites to avoid shipping it back.
The current practice is not to ship all equipment directly as this will cost more and add several hundred million dollars to the annual defence budget. The navy does not have ships big enough to handle all of the SAF's shipping logistics, but will study if its Landing Ship Tanks should be replaced by larger ships.
Existing commercial shipping arrangements have allowed the SAF to ship equipment safely and economically without significant incidents in the past 30 years, he said.
There are rare exceptions, like the transport of advanced weapon and sensor systems, in which the SAF may charter a ship, mandate direct shipping or deploy protection forces. But the Terrex vehicles do not fall into this category, he said.
He added: "We look forward to the Hong Kong government returning our Terrexes in accordance with international law."
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What it should have been
Published on 11 January 2017
In yesterday's article, "Seized Terrexes protected by international law: Ng Eng Hen", we reported Dr Ng as saying that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has written to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying to reiterate the message that the vehicles are protected by sovereign immunity, and request their return.'
Hong Kong has replied that investigations are ongoing and will take some time to complete. We omitted to mention that the Hong Kong authorities also said the Hong Kong government will handle the matter in accordance with its laws. And Singapore welcomed this response, Dr Ng said.